“I move through the world always and most particularly as a white person, I have a white frame of reference, and I have a white experience. And part of being white is to have that be invisible to us and to be able to live our lives without ever acknowledging that, to see that as non-operative.” ~ Robin DiAngelo, anti-racist author.
I’m the only white mom at the birthday party of my 3 year old son’s classmate, and my son is the only white kid in the room. My son enthusiastically runs over to the birthday boy. The room is crowded, so I don’t see which kid he went to and I say happy birthday to the wrong boy, whose dad points me to the correct kid. I’m embarrassed, and think that my mistake will be interpreted as all black people look the same to me. The truth is that my husband is our son’s primary caregiver and brings him to school 95% of the time, so I only know the names of a couple outgoing kids who brightly said hi the few times I’ve gone to the school. But, today, my husband’s out of town with friends. I didn’t imagine that I would feel awkward without him, but I do. I feel out of place and self-conscious.
Uncomfortable, I debate whether to leave, or stay and lean into the discomfort.
A year and a half ago we enrolled our son in the preschool of the neighborhood we’d moved to earlier that year. The walls of his classroom are lined with pictures of famous black people in history, and the first art projects he brings home are about Rosa Parks, Barack Obama, and Martin Luther King Jr. We love the school, and thought our son would benefit from being the minority there. How often is my son going to be the only white kid in the room in his life? Probably not often, unless we create that opportunity for him.
I decide to stay at the party, and take my son to a large dinosaur themed bouncy house outside of the party room. He’s having a great time, and I beat myself up for not being more at ease. I’m used to being in the minority in other ways: in childhood I was the kid on scholarship at a private elementary school attended mostly by kids with incredible wealth (one classmate had a room in their penthouse apartment dedicated to a jungle gym); and in business I’ve been the only woman at the table for over a decade. But this is different. When it comes to inequality in gender and class, I’ve had many direct experiences that shape my understanding. The experiences that have shaped my understanding of inequality in race have all been indirect.
Growing up in New York City in the 80s and 90s, I was surrounded by diversity. I was only a few years younger than the Central Park Five teenagers when they were wrongly accused and convicted of a brutal crime they didn’t commit. None of the Five were white. Even as young teens, my friends and I understood that racial profiling was prevalent in our city. Anytime we came across NYPD the white kids instinctively stood on the outside of our group. I didn’t think much of this at the time, and wasn’t even conscious of it until more than a decade later.
Watching my son jump freely in the dinosaur bouncy house, I am very conscious of how unusual an experience it is for white people to be the outlier. I start thinking of how many times some of my friends have been the only person of color in the room. Is this how they felt? Someone taps my shoulder, and I turn to see the grandmother of the birthday boy, who invites us into the party room because a baby dinosaur is coming to meet the kids. Back inside, several people make a point to include me and offer me food. I start to relax. A mom that I’ve had playdates with has arrived and greets me. When we leave an hour or so later, I feel very grateful for everyone’s kindness, and proud of myself for being willing to be awkward and out of place.
A few months later, at the end of summer, our son is moved into a new class. He officially becomes a preschooler and is so excited about it. The school only allows 12 kids to join the class, and some of his closest friends aren’t moved up with him. After almost 2 years with the same teachers, he’s now with a new teacher that we don’t know yet. Also, whereas before there were four teachers for one large age group, there’s only one teacher for my son’s new class that’s much smaller. My son is all smiles, and especially excited about the new toys and things to climb in the playground for the “big kids”.
The week of Halloween we experienced something we hadn’t previously. After bedtime, but before falling asleep, our son often reenacts moments from his day which we watch on the monitor. They’re mostly adorable, or innocuous, but one night he reenacts his new teacher reprimanding the kids. The tone is jarring, and my husband and I are concerned about it. The next day, our son tells a story from school that also gives us pause. While there’s no reason to be concerned for our son’s safety, we worry that he may be adversely affected by the harshness that we perceive in these moments from school.
My husband and I quickly decide to speak with the school administrator. We realize we never asked her what the school’s policy on discipline was. We were so comfortable with the teachers in his last class, and knew they were thoughtful about how they guided and disciplined the kids. Our son often came home smelling of their perfumes, and we knew he was hugged a lot every day. But, we don’t know this new teacher yet. And there aren’t any other adults in the room with this class, so – if there IS a problem with her approach – there’s no other adult to witness it. My concern grows, and I start wondering how kids were selected for this class. There are kids older than our son who weren’t moved up, so it can’t be based on birthdays. There are kids as or more advanced as our son who also weren’t moved up, so it can’t be based on aptitude. The only kid in his current class whose name I know is constantly in the time-out chair, and I’m confident he’s the reason our son now jokes about butts a lot. I worry that this class is for the difficult kids. Does the school see our son as difficult? Is he difficult? Is it possible that they put him in a class with the difficult kids because he’s white?
We discuss how to handle the situation, and what to say when we talk to the school administrator. My husband is the most even keeled person I’ve ever known, but I can be aggressive and want to make sure I’m thoughtful in how I express myself. Jokingly, I say that I don’t want to be a Becky, Pool Patrol Paula, or Golf Cart Gail. I realize that I can’t approach this the same way I would at a predominantly white school. I wouldn’t really have to think about how I phrase things in that environment. I can’t do that here, I have to be aware of the fact that we’re the minority in this situation.
I notice that a lot of my thoughts begin with “I”…and decide to sit with my thoughts for a few days.
After a period of reflection, my husband and I decide to approach with more restraint and humility. The words I choose focus on my love for our son, and how worrisome it can be to have your child in anyone else’s hands. We also note that the new teacher should get a lot of slack – our kid drives us nuts sometimes, and there aren’t 11 more of him in our charge daily. I feel calmer, and notice that my concern has diminished significantly because of this more thoughtful approach.
Why did it take being the minority in order to understand a bit of what black parents experience with their children? It’s because we live in a society with systems and institutions created by white people. Similar to patriarchy, where men hold significant power over women, because they created the power structure; white people are at the center of our institutions and power structures. We cannot understand a non-white experience, unless we go out of our comfort zones. And growing up amongst diversity in New York City didn’t exempt me from having to do that, and having diverse friends and coworkers and neighbors as an adult didn’t either.
There’s a lot to gain from learning more about our whiteness. It’s not just about racial or social equality. Even if you haven’t started to investigate white privilege or white fragility, or how they affect our culture, there is a lot to learn about humility. And about the true cause of the problems our country is facing. If we are going to raise children who understand the world around them, we must understand it first. School shootings, the current political climate, the terrible inequality of wealth in the country, the disappearing middle class – these are interconnected with systemic racism. Giving our kids better futures needs to start with a real understanding of what’s causing the current problems, and we can’t do that in a bubble. Even if my son were at a predominantly white school, I still should have handled the situation with the same care as I would being in the minority. The thing is that I wouldn’t have thought to in that environment.
Parenthood is challenging in a way that nothing else has been in my life before it. It thrust me into something new and foreign, it gave me the opportunity to experience a different kind of love and to learn patience on another level. It made me realize that a big part of the wonderment of youth is in constantly being challenged, and experiencing things outside of our comfort zone. Getting out of your comfort zone in adulthood is a powerful thing. It’s also a necessary thing for white people to do, if we are going to create a safer, more equitable, just, and thoughtful culture for the next generation. Get out of your comfort zone, be uncomfortable, see what it brings up for you and decide if you are willing to look at it honestly. My willingness to do that is showing me the truth about the world around me, it’s giving me so much to think about and be curious about, and it’s fundamentally improving my understanding of the challenges we’re facing as a country.
Alexandra Safford is a member of White People 4 Black Lives. To learn more about their work, or to participate in anti-racist work or workshops, go to: www.awarela.org